January 1996

Workplace Labor Update - Subtle Racism – January 1996

2 min

In a suit against Mary Washington College, a federal appeals court recently held that student evaluations negatively commenting on a professor’s accent did not indicate race or national origin discrimination. Jiminez v. Mary Washington College, 57 F.3d 369 (4th Cir.), cert. denied, 116 S.Ct. 380 (1995).

In 1989, the College hired Anthony Jiminez, a black from Trinidad, West Indies, as an assistant professor. Upon completion of a six year probationary period, Jiminez was eligible for tenure.

In the Spring of 1993, after years of unsatisfactory performance, dismal student evaluations, a lack of scholarly work, and a failure to defend his doctorate dissertation, Jiminez was offered a one-year terminal contract and was invited to reapply for a tenure-track position, provided he substantially improved in student and colleague evaluations, professional scholarship, and that he successfully defend his dissertation.

Jiminez rejected this offer, and sued the College, claiming he was denied tenure based upon his race and national origin. The trial court accepted Jiminez’ theory that the student evaluations were tainted by bias, relying in part on a letter of support claiming Jiminez was the victim of “subtle racism.” The trial court found a white conspiracy to oust Jiminez, reflected in a history of poor student evaluations, which the College relied upon in his termination.

The appeals court reversed that decision, ruling that the trial court had not properly evaluated the evidence. The appeals court relied on numerous student evaluations, complaining about Jiminez’ heavy foreign accent. The court found that such complaints represented a legitimate need to comprehend a teacher’s use of language, not expressions of bigotry.

In addition, the appeals court carefully examined Jiminez’s repeated failure to publish scholarly works, despite the College’s justified interest in works in peer-review publications. Since the College had relied upon legitimate evaluations of his teaching performance and other justifiable factors for its decision, the College permissibly denied Jiminez tenure, found the court. The appeals court concluded that the claim of “subtle racism” was nothing but speculation.

This case illustrates the importance of justifiable criteria in making employment decisions. Since the College had relied upon objective factors which related to Jiminez’ performance as a teacher the court was reluctant to intrude upon the employment decision. Where such criteria are not set forth and used, however, employers are increasingly at risk of having employment decisions reviewed for improper bias. Accordingly, employers must carefully match their decision-making criteria with the scope and duties of the position being reviewed.